In Amy Fellner Dominy’s debut OyMG, Ellie Taylor has one shot at attending the school of her dreams, where she hopes to be a part of the champion oratory team. If she performs well at the Christian Society Speech and Performing Arts summer camp she could be chosen as a scholarship student. Ellie only has to impress the formidable Mrs. Yeats, who is apparently not impressed with Judaism.
Does Ellie turn her back on her faith and her family, or does she remain true to her history and risk losing what she's worked so hard for? Falling in love with Mrs. Yeats’ grandson only makes the question more fraught. Dominy shares her insight into teens and her technique for terrific dialogue.
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Your book delves into some heavy issues—identity, religion, family. Why do teenagers make such a good audience for tough questions?
I can remember that time of my life—all through middle school and high school—when I was figuring out who I was and where I wanted to be, where I fit in. Ellie is different in terms of her religion, but I think all kids have some facet of themselves that feels different. Everyone is struggling with that—how do I stand out but also fit in?
Why make Ellie come from an interfaith family rather than have both a Jewish mother and a Jewish father?
Ellie’s conflict is whether or not to hide the fact that she's Jewish. When I'm creating a problem for my characters, I always like to give them strong reasons to go either way. I always knew what decision I wanted her to come to, but it was stronger for me if I could really argue from both sides. She had good reasons to hide and good reasons to stand up for who she was. The element of coming from an interfaith family, I thought, created more questions and conflicts and issues for her because her identity could be shifted into two different religious camps. I think, too, that there are a lot of interfaith kids out there.
Where did the idea of having Ellie involved in speech come from? Were you on the debate team?
I was always in music and theater in high school, but speech was something I never did much of. I was trying to figure out what Ellie’s thing was going to be when one day our local paper was talking about the high school team, who were the state champions in speech and debate. I thought, “Oh, that’s so perfect!” She's a girl who likes to argue; it was a perfect activity for her. So I called the coach, and he invited me to come watch his team compete, and I was really impressed with how those kids just stood up and did it. That’s what really formed the basis for Ellie's experience as an orator.
The relationship between Ellie and Zeydeh [her grandfather] is very sweet—did you have a relationship like that with your grandparents?
No, I wish I had a zeydeh like that! My grandparents are much older, and I never really knew them very well. I'm not sure where this Zeydeh character came from. He seems to be just a voice in my head. I wish he was real.
Your book features lots of dialogue—how did you get the tone and pitch of the conversations so pitch-perfect?
Dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing, and I do always read everything out loud. I’ve also been told I mumble to myself when I’m writing, though I never notice it. And I think I’m a very good eavesdropper! I have two teenagers in the house, so that helps.
Your book manages to be very funny even while delving into hard issues.
I worried about how to combine the two in a way that works. If someone comes to the book expecting it to be light and fun, they might be disappointed to find something serious and vice versa. But my voice and my style of writing is geared toward humor. I’m interested in books that have something solid at the heart, so I tend to write about things that feel important. But the characters tend to have quirks, and that’s what leads to the humor.